Dig, dig, dig, chop, chop, chop…
In past columns I’ve called out other artists for owing The Books a stylistic debt of gratitude, as what they do and how they compose are unlike 99% of musicians out there (numbers completely subjective – I can survey the landscape if you really want). Obviously, if I’m making so many comparisons, I’ve got to be into it, right? Absolutely. I find the glitch-folk duo utterly fascinating, and I credit them for introducing me to a whole new subset of experimental music. I was inundated in any sort of indie-guitar rock at the time Thought for Food was released in 2002, and the methodology and execution within the album’s 38 minutes was so deep, rich, vibrant, and unusual that it made me an instant believer in the possibilities beyond the traditional rock format. (I had been branching out at this time as well into genres beyond those featuring “rock” as the subject, but I fully consider The Books a gateway drug.)
So then, why should you listen to The Books? Besides the obvious answer of I told you to, that is. I imagine you’ll need more than the simple fact that they’re awesome. A little background, then. As I mention above, there are only two guys here combining their prodigious skills into their recording craft. Guitarist/banjoist Nick Zammuto and cellist/violinist Paul de Jong met in New York in 1999 when they lived in the same apartment building, and each discovered the other’s interest in the avant garde. De Jong had amassed a vast collection of archival sounds and video, which he and Zammuto mined for samples throughout the recording of their albums. (Perhaps the library nature of their mutual discovery of musical taste played into the naming of their collaboration. That or they’re a couple of smarty-pants bohemians and you’re too dumb. Jury’s out.) And while the overall sound is a mixture of folk and processed electronics and samples, the duo takes these seemingly banal ingredients and infuses them deeply with meaning and color, crafting movements with sounds and language that deftly recall no one but themselves.*
Found sound, particularly language – the human voice – is such a primary component that it’s impossible to discuss Thought for Food, or their subsequent albums, without placing a heavy emphasis on it. The Books’ M.O., at least at the beginning, was almost solely instrumental in nature, as sampled conversation, laughter, ambient room sound, and other musical recordings were given room to breathe and define the songs – more so, at times, than the music. And it is clear that Zammuto and de Jong are absolutely in love with the human voice as a strange instrument, as they tease out the quirks and imperfections of the sounds laid to tape. And the samples are obscure, too – take, for example, “Read, Eat, Sleep,” on which a pitch-shifted voice intones the spelling of the title over sparse acoustic playing, an act difficult to discern in itself if you start paying attention to it midway through the song. But what makes the sample unique is that the spoken letters are pieced together from a contestant at the mic during a spelling bee, an odd and almost certainly one-of-a-kind choice for source material. “A Dead Fish Gains the Power of Observation” is a minute-long foray into the weird, as a European-accented man tells the story of the dead fish doing exactly what the title implies. There’s not much to it, but the voice itself is astonishing in its deliberate pacing and pronunciation, truly music in itself.
But even though the sounds are a main attraction, so too are the playing and processing, as Zammuto and de Jong display an almost classical capacity for composition all while remaining within pop music structures. The guitar/banjo and cello/violin intertwine with each other provocatively, as well as warmly, giving the sense that you’re listening to an old Victrola through huge faux-wood furniture speakers in front of the fire. It’s a dusty, archival mood, fitting for the band perhaps – the music like an aural equivalent of reading. “Enjoy Your Worries, You May Never Have Them Again” begins the album, and crams in all the tricks the two can muster into one song: the delicate picking and bowing, the left-field samples (including one featuring a woman with a New Jersey accent lamenting her economic condition), and one of my favorite things about The Books: their cut-and-paste aesthetic when it comes to percussion, in that they record themselves and sample that into clicks and whirs, resulting in surprisingly spry rhythms. This culminates again in the playfully titled “All Bad Ends All,” a mutant ragtime piece wherein Zammuto channels Django Reinhardt while being chased by Skeleton Key’s rhythm section. It’s the most fun I’ve had in the 1930s in at least 80 years.
The fun with language, voice, grammar, and instrumentation continues throughout, and continues to be satisfying and surprising. Zammuto and de Jong mimic Dianogah’s nimble strummed bass tunes on the awesomely and intentionally poor-grammared “All Are Bass Are Belong to Us,” on which the former lends some basic vocals to the chorus. “Motherless Bastard” hilariously (or perhaps, not so much) samples a child talking to his father, who responds “You have no mother or father.” The child thinks it’s a game and continues until the father almost too seriously says “I don’t know yous [sic]. Don’t touch me – don’t call me [daddy] in public.” Weird stuff, and what follows is the most beautiful and pastoral Western American folk to ever come out of New York City. “Mikey Bass” swings funkily on titular metallic lines, and the euphonically titled “Excess Strausses” blends classical strings with further sampling for a surreal orchestral experience.
I could go on and on about individual tracks and their building blocks, as each is worth your time to explore fully, each minute detail worth hovering over, as it’s obvious the songs’ creators did. And while Thought for Food is merely the starting point for any Books enthusiast – although throughout their catalog you’ll be able to mark subtle and not-so-subtle (see Zammuto’s increased vocal visibility in Lost and Safe) changes to the basic template – it’s also one of the most fully formed and surprising pieces of music released in the first part of this century. It is the reference point for bedroom lap-pop-ists and any producer with grand experimental ambitions. But it’s Thought for Food’s humility and lack of flash that endears it so gracefully to its audience. You’ll listen to it with as much care and joy as Zammuto and de Jong obviously did while crafting it.
RIYL: Boards of Canada, Django Reinhardt, Matmos, Lucky Dragons